The beginner photographer’s guide to the golden hour

How to capture the best light at dawn and dusk to fill your portrait and landscape shots with sunshine. 

Marden Meadow Nature Reserve, Kent, England, United Kingdom, Europe

The magical ‘golden hour’ is well-known by landscape and portrait photographers alike, although there are actually two in a day – the hour after sunrise and the hour before sunset. On a sunny day, the warm, diffused light at these times can transform your photos, and the good news is that you can try them in winter, too, when there’s no need to get up at 3am to catch the dawn! Here are some tips and tricks for taking advantage of this magical light.

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beautiful spring wildflowers

1. Plan ahead. Pick a location to shoot at beforehand, and then calculate precisely when the golden hour occurs by checking when the sun will rise and set using an online calendar. Plan to get into position 15 to 20 minutes before the hour begins. It can mean an early start in the morning, but it’ll all be worth it for the magical dawn landscapes you can capture.

2. Shoot fast. You’ve got a small window to shoot in, and the weather can change quickly, so get snapping as soon as the conditions are right. Keep taking shots throughout the hour – the light will change dramatically as the sun moves.

Nork York Moors at dawn, Goathland, Yorkshire, UK.

3. Switch to a wide aperture for portraits. Increase the dreamy golden feeling of portrait and macro shots at first and last light by switching down to a wide aperture of f/5.6. This will keep the focus firmly on your subject and help you create a bokeh effect in the background with any pinpoints of light.

4. Take a tripod for landscapes. The above doesn’t apply for lanscape shots, when you’ll need an aperture of something like f/22 to get everyhing in focus. The light won’t be as strong as in the middle of the day, though, so you’ll need a tripod to ensure everything stays sharp.

5. Adjust White Balance. Your camera will try to compromise for the warm golden tones it’s perceiving, so switch out of auto White Balance and pick ‘cloudy’ instead to keep the colours true.

Cattle Grazing in a Feild

6. Experiment with flare. ‘Flare’ is what happens when sunlight hits the front of the lens and distorts the image, adding sun spots or rays to your shot. The good news is that you can use it deliberately to add drama to a photograph. If your subject is between you and the sun, reposition yourself so that the sun is particially masked and see if you can create a sun ray effect.

7. Play with silhouettes. If you’re shooting portraits or objects, try placing them directly in front of the setting sun to create a strong, silhouetted look.

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8. Shoot into the sun Alternatively, if you want to keep the detail in your subject but they’re looking dark, compensate by upping your exposure by one or two stops to avoid losing their features.

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9. Pick out detail. Low light in the sky can create beautiful rim lighting around your subjects, and this works especially well for closeup shots of plants and flowers, highlighting their delicate shapes.

Blowing a dandelion